It says a lot about America that John McCain was never elected president. It says even more that, in retrospect, we sort of wish he had been.
Indeed, all the way back in 2001, during an interview with Charlie Rose (ahem), Bill Maher cited McCain—recently defeated in the GOP primaries by George W. Bush—as among his favorite Republican politicians. “He’s everyone’s favorite,” said Rose, to which Maher dismissively retorted, “Then why doesn’t he win?”
It’s a damn good question, and a useful lens through which to view our entire political system. As McCain clings ever-more-precariously to life—having spent the last 10 months ravaged by glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer—we might reflect on the strange way that our most accomplished and admired public officials tend not to rise all the way to the Oval Office—and why a great many more never bother to run in the first place.
On paper, McCain would seem exactly the sort of person the Founding Fathers had in mind as a national leader: A scrappy rebel from a distinguished family who proves his mettle on the battlefield, then parlays that fame into a steady career in public service. (He was first elected to Congress in 1982 and has never held another job.)
While hardly a first-class intellect—he famously graduated near the bottom of his class at Annapolis—McCain’s grit and endurance through five-and-a-half years of torture and deprivation in a Vietnamese prison forever burnished his reputation as among the most indefatigable men in American life—someone who would speak truth to bullshit and hold no loyalties except to his own conscience. Having cheated death multiple times, here was a man with precious little to fear and even less to lose.
Against this noble backdrop, it would be the understatement of the year to say that, as a two-time presidential candidate, John McCain was a complicated and contradictory figure—perhaps even a tragic one. In 2000, he established his political persona as a crusty, “straight-talking” “maverick,” only to be felled in South Carolina by a racist Bush-sanctioned robocall operation that McCain was too gentlemanly to condemn. (The robocalls implied, among other things, that McCain’s adopted daughter from Bangladesh was an out-of-wedlock “love child.”)
Eight years later, having learned a thing or three about brass-knuckles campaigning, McCain scraped and clawed his way to the Republican nomination—besting no fewer than 11 competitors—only to throw it all away with the single most irresponsible decision of his life: His selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate.
With nearly a decade of hindsight, the science is in that choosing Palin—a world-class ignoramus and America’s gateway drug to Donald Trump—constituted the selling of McCain’s soul for the sake of political expediency. Rather than running with his good friend (and non-Republican) Joe Lieberman and losing honorably, he opted to follow his advisers’ reckless gamble and win dishonorably. That he managed to lose anyway—the final, unalterable proof that the universe has a sense of humor—was the perfect denouement to this most Sisyphean of presidential odysseys. He was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t.
The truth is that McCain wouldn’t have won the 2008 election no matter what he did, and this had very little to do with him. After eight years of George W. Bush—a member of McCain’s party, with approval ratings below 30 percent in his final months—the thrust of history was simply too strong for anyone but a Democrat to prevail that November. (Since 1948, only once has the same party won three presidential elections in a row.)
If McCain was ever going to become president, it would’ve been in 2000. Pre-9/11, pre-Iraq War and post-Bill Clinton, a colorful, self-righteous veteran could’ve wiped the floor with a stiff, boring policy wonk like Al Gore.
Why didn’t he get that chance? The official explanation (as mentioned) is the reprehensible smear campaign Team Bush unloaded in the South Carolina primary. However, the more complete answer is that Republican primary voters throughout the country simply didn’t view McCain as one of their own. Compared to Bush—a born-again Christian with an unambiguously conservative record—McCain was a quasi-liberal apostate who called Jerry Falwell an “agent of intolerance” and seemed to hold a large chunk of the GOP base in bemused contempt.
McCain’s problem, in other words, was the primary system itself, in which only the most extreme and partisan among us actually participate, thereby disadvantaging candidates who—whether through their ideas or their character—might appeal to a wider, more ideologically diverse audience later on. Recent casualties of this trend include the likes of John Kasich and John Huntsman on the right to John Edwards and (arguably) Bernie Sanders on the left.
On the other hand, sometimes primary voters will do precisely the opposite by selecting nominees whom they perceive to be the most “electable”—a strategy that, in recent decades, has produced an almost perfect record of failure, from John Kerry to Mitt Romney to Hillary Clinton.
By being his best self in 2000 and his worst self in 2008, McCain managed to fall into both traps and end up nowhere. Indeed, he may well have been a victim of bad timing more than anything else—as was, say, Chris Christie by not running in 2012 or Hillary Clinton by not running in 2004.
Then again, all of history is based on contingencies, and it is the job of the shrewd politician to calibrate his strengths to the tenor of the moment without sacrificing his core identity. However appealing he may be in a vacuum, he must be the right man at the right time—the one thing Barack Obama and Donald Trump had in common.
As Brian Wilson would say, maybe John McCain just wasn’t made for these times. Maybe he wasn’t elected president because America didn’t want him to be president. Maybe his purpose in life was to be exactly what he was: A fiery renegade senator who drove everybody a little crazy and loved every minute of it. Maybe he wouldn’t have been any good as commander-in-chief anyhow—too impulsive, too hawkish—and maybe we’re better off not knowing for sure.
Will someone of McCain’s ilk ever rise to the nation’s highest office in the future? Wouldn’t it be nice if they did?